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Stream of Consciousness Final Thoughts on the 2021 Football Season

Yep, it’s that time of year.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Saul Young/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

By tradition that started in (I think) 2018, when the season is over, it’s time for me to write my final thoughts in stream of consciousness form, where I just write down the thoughts as they come to me.

  • I’m not sure I’ve ever been more ready for a Vanderbilt season to be over (whether football or men’s basketball, the two sports I really cover for Anchor of Gold) than I was this season. And that’s not really a reflection on the coaching staff or any of the players on the team. This team was just bad, but it wasn’t bad in an “I can’t possibly look away from this train wreck” kind of way like the 2018-19 basketball team, where your morbid curiosity just wanted to see how bad things could get. No, this was a team that played hard and didn’t quit but just didn’t have the talent to compete in the SEC, and ... I just spent most of the last month or so wanting to fast forward to 2022. As a lot of you probably did.
  • That said, without getting too much into the specifics of the coaching, if you were going to screw up, screw up with this roster — Year 1 (really Year Zero), with a team that entered the season where my most optimistic take had them going 4-8. That, of course, turned out to be way too optimistic.
  • I mean, at least they let us know in the ETSU game just what we could expect this season.
  • I don’t have too many complaints about the coaching in that context — and I think anybody who’s going to be critical of the coaching staff this season needs to admit that point. I don’t think any head coach who Vanderbilt realistically could have hired would have done much better, and to the extent that they would have, it would have had more to do with simply fielding a different roster by hitting the transfer portal than doing a better job with this group.
  • Were there things they could have done better? Of course, but if you’re trying to make broad assessments of Clark Lea as a head coach based on this season, you’re probably not going to get very far.
  • One thing I did like, though, was Lea’s increasing aggressiveness on fourth down late in the season. The concern I always have with defensive coordinators who become head coaches is that they’ll go in thinking they can win games 10-7, an attitude that leads to stuff like punting from the other team’s 40 because field position. Clark Lea moved past that late in the season and it’s probably indicative of the biggest step he needed to take in going from a defensive coordinator to a head coach.
  • Back to the transfer portal: the discourse around this always treats bringing in transfers as an unalloyed good, as though there isn’t a trade-off. That trade-off is, on the one hand, scholarships going to transfers instead of freshmen, which can really screw up your roster numbers (because with a 25-man initial counter limit, you can wind up well below the 85-man limit and unable to restock if you’re not careful), but also that those transfers are almost certainly going to be taking playing time away from younger players you’d like to develop.
  • The point is that there’s a time and place to load up on transfers, and a 2-10 roster isn’t it. I compare it to an MLB team that goes into the offseason figuring that they have a 60-win roster; you’re not going to load up on free agents and trade away prospects in an effort to win 70. Now if the free agents and trading away prospects can get you from 80 wins to 90, you do it, but if you’re going to be bad either way, why not see what you have with the prospects.
  • That said, I wouldn’t mind if they tried to add some transfers this offseason. Then again, probably the biggest problem area — the offensive line — also happens to be probably the most difficult to address in the transfer portal.
  • On the quarterback situation, I think Lea handled it about as well as he reasonably could have. I don’t think Lea had much choice but to play Ken Seals to start the season — you don’t simply come in and bench an incumbent starter who played reasonably well as a true freshman. I hated the way that they played musical chairs in the ETSU game, and from there Lea stuck with Seals for a few games. Then they got to see what Mike Wright could do without actually having to bench Seals, because he was injured. The one thing you can maybe criticize was going back to Seals for the Kentucky game, but again, that was defensible; Wright’s best performance didn’t come until after that.
  • I do not think both Ken Seals and Mike Wright will be on the roster in fall 2022. My guess is that one of the two (whoever looks like he won’t get the starting job) will transfer out after the spring. No, I don’t have any inside information on this, but that’s just the nature of college football in 2021. Nobody wants to be Mackenzi Adams any more.
  • I thought the defensive scheme was fine, with the biggest problem being that the defensive backs just can’t stay with anyone — a problem that dates to the Mason era.
  • Again, I’ll be very surprised if Lea is gone before 2024. It would probably take three disastrous seasons for that to happen.
  • At least record-wise, next season probably won’t be much better. The nonconference schedule — at Hawaii, Elon, Wake Forest, at Northern Illinois — could be anything from 1-3 to 4-0 (before you laugh, Wake Forest reportedly is losing a ton off this year’s team), but probably closer to the low end than the high end. And in SEC play, they draw Alabama from the West — so, that’s a loss. I think winning an SEC game or two would be tangible improvement, but I’m just not sure where it would come from — I mean, we’re talking about an SEC East where Florida finished sixth in 2021.